Joe Biden was getting wound up, as he tends to do at the podium, those moments where his voice rises and his face reddens and whatever script he brought seems beside the point.
“Remember what this at its core was all about, [what] this organization at its core was all about,” he practically whispered to the NAACP on Thursday. Then, chopping the air with both hands, he broke into a shout: “It was about the franchise. It was about the right to vote. Because when you have the right to vote, you have the right to change things … We see a future where those rights are expanded, not diminished.”
President Obama was a no-show, which caused some grumbling. But his vice president roused the crowd, ripping the Republicans with far more passion than his boss usually musters.
It was, of course, a friendly audience, some of whose members had booed Mitt Romney the day before for the sin of saying he could do better for African-American families. But the moment crystallized the role that the once-maligned veep is playing in the 2012 campaign.
“Joe Biden is a guy who's never strayed far from his working-class roots in Scranton, [Penn.],” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, told me. “He identifies with people and their struggles, and believes, to his core, that the strength and greatness of America lies in a strong, thriving middle class. And that is apparent in every talk he gives. He connects with people in a visceral way.”
Some find Biden’s speechifying compelling, others view his style as over the top. But no one has accused him of faking it.
“He has a way of connecting with, and communicating with, middle-class and working-class voters that is unique in America,” says Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff. “It comes from the heart, it comes from his life experience, it comes from 30 years of fighting for those folks.”
The Romney camp, naturally, didn’t think much of the Biden oration. “The black American community has struggled with high unemployment under President Obama, and Vice President Biden’s speech today offered no new ideas or solutions,” said Tara Wall, a senior Romney adviser.
In that speech, Biden made each criticism of the GOP—on health care, on education, even the Earned Income Tax Credit—sound like a moral failing. It was an old-fashioned stemwinder in an era of YouTube coolness.
To be sure, it isn’t hard to find videotape of past Biden gaffes, the most memorable of which was the day that Obama signed his signature health care law and the VP, forgetting about his mike, pronounced it a big blanking deal.
“He is someone who says it like it is, and sometimes that can get him in trouble,” Klain says. “But at a time when our politics can seem artificial, he is authentic in many ways.”
Perhaps his biggest mistake took place in May, when Biden declared on Meet the Press that he was in favor of same-sex marriage, forcing Obama to follow suit months before he had planned to announce that shift. The president said Biden “probably got out a little bit over his skis,” and ABC News reported that the veep had apologized to Obama. But that episode seems to have been forgotten since Romney all but failed to challenge Obama on the marriage issue.
Despite the early chatter that Hillary Clinton would be a stronger running mate—which was never going to happen—Biden is playing a key strategic role. “He will log a lot of miles for us, and already has,” in battleground states, says Axelrod. Toward that end, Biden has spent time in Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. With his blue-collar roots, he has spoken to union conventions, including the Communications Workers of America and AFSCME.
Beyond the venues, Biden has delivered what campaign officials describe as five framing speeches, setting out themes the administration hopes to push this fall. There was the federal bailout of the auto industry (opposed by Romney). Protecting Social Security and Medicare. The importance of American manufacturing. Tax fairness. And foreign policy.
Vice-presidential candidates often function as attack dogs, and Biden will undoubtedly be asked to slash Romney this fall so the president can stay on the high road. But it is no secret that Obama has never quite forged a connection with the lunchpail crowd. That weakness has made him more reliant on the former Delaware senator who commuted home by Amtrak.
Biden gets carried away at times. During a speech in Youngstown in May, he seemed overcome by emotion as he recounted how his mom thought he could maybe be president one day: “My mother dreams as much as any rich guy dreams. They don’t get us! They don’t get who we are!”
The vice president is nothing if not comfortable campaigning against “they”—Republicans, rich guys, those who stand in the way of liberal progress. Detractors would call it class warfare. But it also amounts to drawing clear dividing lines in an election that Obama can win only by convincing enough middle-class voters that Romney is not on their side.